When Pope Francis in May of 2015 issued his Laudata Si encyclical which called climate change a moral issue, it got global attention. Yet despite extensive international media coverage of worldwide condemnation of President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, there has been relatively little coverage of why the Trump decision should be understood not only as a dangerous break with the international community but as a profoundly immoral choice.
Climate change has certain features that more than any other global environmental problem call for responding to it as a moral problem. First, it is a problem caused mostly by high-emitting developed countries that are putting relatively low emitting developing countries most at risk. Second, the potential harms to the most vulnerable nations and people are not mere inconveniences but include catastrophic threats to life and the ecological systems on which life depends. Third, those people and nations most at risk can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments to shield them; their best hope is that high-emitting nations will respond to their obligations to not harm others. Fourth CO2 emissions become well mixed in the atmosphere so that CO2 atmosphere concentrations are roughly the same around the world regardless of the source of the emissions. Therefore unlike other air pollution problems which most threaten only those nations and communities located within the pollution plume, greenhouse gas emissions from any one country are threatening people and other countries around the world. This means that US greenhouse gas emissions are causing and threatening enormous harm all over the world.
Under the 2015 Paris accord, 195 nations agreed to cooperate to limit warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C and no more than 2.0°C. Even nations that have historically opposed strong international action on climate change, including most of the OPEC countries, agreed to this warming limit goal because there is a broad scientific consensus that warming above these amounts will not only cause harsh climate impacts to millions around the word, but could lead to abrupt climate change which could create great danger for much of the human race. The international community’s condemnation of the Trump decision is attributable to the understanding that achieving the Paris agreement’s warming limit goals will require the cooperation of all nations and particularly high emitting nations including the United States to adopt greenhouse gas reduction targets more ambitious than nations have committed to thus far. For this reason, most nations view the Trump decision as outrageously dangerous.
Trump justified his decision by his claim that removing the United States from the Paris agreement was consistent with his goal of adopting policies that put America first. According to Trump staying in the Paris Agreement would cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 including 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. This claim was based on a dubious study by National Economic Research Associates which was funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Council for Capitol Formation. This study has been widely criticized for several reasons including that it neither counted the number of jobs which would be created in the renewable energy industry in a transformed energy sector nor the economic benefits of preventing climate change caused harms.
Yet it is the Trump assertion that the United States can base its energy policy primarily on putting US economic interests first while ignoring US obligations to not harm others that most clearly provokes moral outrage around the world. The moral principle that people may not harm others on the basis of self-interest is recognized by the vast majority of the world’s religions and in international law under the “no harm principle”. The “no- harm’ rule is a principle of customary international law whereby a nation is duty-bound to prevent, reduce, and control the risk of environmental harm to other nations caused by activities within the nation For these reasons, the Trump decision on the Paris Agreement is a moral travesty.
I. Introduction. Relative Lack of Media Focus on the Danger of Appointing the Exxon CEO to be US Secretary of State Given the Enormity of the Climate Change Threat.
How should those who are concerned about the enormous threat of climate change respond to the Trump nomination of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to be the US Secretary of State given the enormous damage that Exxon has already caused through the company’s successful efforts in delaying the adoption of US climate change policies?
Trump’s selection of Tillerson for Secretary of State has received considerable understandable attention from the US media largely because of concern about Exxon’s ties to Russia, including, for instance, a contract with Russia negotiated by Tillerson in the amount of $500 billion that can’t be executed until economic sanctions placed on Russia for its invasion of the Ukraine are lifted.
Given the potential meddling of Russia in the recent US presidential election and potential conflicts between Russia’s and US interests, appointing someone to be the lead US foreign policy administrator who is the chief executive of a company with such close ties to Russia creates reason for obvious concerns about the ability of the Secretary of State to manage foreign policy so as to protect US interests while ignoring the interests of the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company which are sometimes in conflict with American goals.
Conflicts between Exxon’s interests and US foreign policy interests are likely to frequently arise in the Trump administration. For instance, it is in the US interest to keep the price of fossil fuel very low but not in the interest of a fossil fuel company, nor Russia for that matter, both of which could benefit from high fossil fuel prices.
Receiving considerable less attention from the US media is the propriety of appointing someone to be US Secretary of State who has been the chief executive of Exxon, a company with a well documented hostility to government policies on climate change. This hostility has not only manifested itself in Exxon’s spending of many millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to oppose proposed US domestic policies on climate change and supporting politicians who have consistently opposed proposed US climate change policies but also, even more disconcerting, Exxon has funded organizations who have been actively fighting to stop the United States from adopting climate change policies by employing morally reprehensible tactics to undermine citizens’ understanding of the scientific basis for the need to aggressively respond to climate change.
As we have explained, on this website in considerable detail (see articles under disinformation campaign in the index), although scientific skepticism is good because skepticism is the oxygen of science, Exxon has funded organizations engaged in disinformation who have used utterly indefensible tactics including: (1) lying or reckless disregard for the truth about climate change science, (2) manufacturing false scientific claims about climate change by holding bogus scientific conferences at which participants have made scientific claims that have never not been subjected to peer review, (3) supporting front groups and fake grass roots organizations to oppose climate change policies whose creation was designed to hide the real parties in interest, (4) cherry-picking mainstream climate science by emphasizing a few minor issues in climate science about which there is some scientific uncertainty while ignoring the huge body of climate change science which is undisputed and claiming the uncertainties undermine the entire body of mainstream climate science, and (5) funding public relations strategies to undermine US citizens confidence in mainstream climate science, and (6) cyber bullying mainstream climate scientists and journalist who report on growing climate change risk.
Fossil fuel company support of the climate change disinformation campaign has been responsible for at least a twenty-five year delay in the United States response to climate change, a delay which has also thwarted international efforts to achieve a global solution to climate change and has made the threat of climate change now extraordinarily dangerous and made the warming limit goals agreed to by the world in Paris in 2015 to as close as possible 1.5 degrees C but no more than 2 degrees C extraordinarily difficult to achieve.
And so, the chief executive of a company has been nominated to lead the development of US foreign policy including forging an international position on climate change which company is already responsible for enormous potential climate change caused harms to the world created by the delay which is attributable to their funding and that of several other fossil fuel companies, industry organizations, and free-market fundamentalist foundations.
Although entities other than Exxon have also contributed to the funding of the climate change disinformation campaign, a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) in October concluded that the main organizations comprising the climate denial echo chamber were funded by ExxonMobil and Koch Family Foundation and produced misinformation that effectively polluted mainstream media coverage of climate science and polarized the climate policy debate. The study is: Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change, October 12, 2015.
This study’s analysis of 20 years’ worth of communication data between participants in the climate change counter-movement by Yale University researcher Dr. Justin Farrell shows beyond doubt that Exxon and the Koch Family Foundations have been key actors who funded the climate disinformation campaign and ensured the prolific spread of their doubt products throughout our mainstream media and public discourse about climate change.
“The contrarian efforts have been so effective for the fact that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust,” Dr. Farrell told the Washington Post. Dr Farrell said: “This counter-movement produced messages aimed, at the very least, at creating ideological polarization through politicized tactics, and at the very most, at overtly refuting current scientific consensus with scientific findings of their own.”
As we have explained on this website, the tactics deployed by the climate change disinformation campaign funded by some fossil fuel companies including Exxon and others should be understood as a new kind of crime against humanity because they are deeply morally reprehensible even if not classifiable as a crime under existing law because of the enormous climate change harms these tactics have caused to tens of millions of poor vulnerable people around the world, some of which are already occurring as others are already in the pipeline.
Thus an argument can be made that Exxon and the other entities who have funded the climate change disinformation campaign to protect their profits should be made to help pay for at least some of the climate change adaptation responses that are now needed to protect poor vulnerable people around the world from rising seas, floods, droughts, and diminished water supplies and the enormous damages from climate change that will be experienced because of the approximate three decade delay in responding to climate change that is attributable to the climate change disinformation campaign which began to get organized in the late 1980s. (Several law suits that have been filed against Exxon and other fossil fuel companies by plaintiffs seeking damages from climate change harms have been dismissed thus far, often on the grounds that allocating climate change damages is a political rather than a judicial function yet a growing number of cases continue to be filed seeking to establish legal liability of fossil fuel companies for their role in spreading misinformation about climate change.)
Yet, rather than making Exxon responsible for the enormous damage it has done through its successful efforts to prevent government policies to reduce GHG emissions., President-elect Trump has nominated Exxon’s CEO to be the spokesperson for US foreign policy including climate change foreign policy. This is arguably like appointing the CEO of Philip Morris to be the Surgeon General of the United States.
II. Why Has the US Media Given Little Attention About the Danger from Climate Change of Making the Exxon CEO US Secretary of State?
Why has the US press mostly ignored the extreme danger of making the CEO of a huge powerful oil company Secretary of State which company has been responsible for dangerous delays in responding to climate change through the use of morally reprehensible tactics and which company’s profits are greatly threatened by policies that rapidly reduce GHG emissions?
It would appear that the media’s relative lack of concern about nominating an Exxon CEO to run the State Department is attributable to Exxon’s and Tillerson’s announcements which began in 2006 that they had changed their views on climate change, agreed that human-induced climate change was a threat worthy of policy responses which include potentially putting a price on carbon, and Exxon would no longer fund organizations participating in climate change denial. (For a discussion of Exxon’s and Tillerson’s gradual shift on climate change see John Schwartz, New York Times, Tillerson Led Exxon’s Shift on Climate Change; Some Say ‘It Was All P.R.‘)
In fact, some recent press coverage of Tillerson’s nomination to be the US Secretary of State have uncritically portrayed the Exxon CEO as a climate change advocate.
For instance Media Matters has reported in a CBS Evening News Report on December 13, anchor Scott Pelley said of Tillerson: “The lifelong oil man has no government experience, but he did convince Exxon to acknowledge climate change.” [CBS Evening News, 12/13/16]
Media Matters also reported that on December 10, an NBC news segment discussing Tillerson, correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported, “During his time at the world’s largest public energy company, Tillerson acknowledged the science behind climate change, supporting a carbon tax, while also expressing support for the Paris Climate Agreement.”
And so it would appear that Exxon’s and Tillerson’s recent stated changes in their positions on the acceptance of climate change science is responsible to the US media’s largely uncritical coverage of Tillerson’s nomination despite Exxon’s role in successfully undermining US responses to climate change and the basic conflict that exists between rapidly reducing GHG emissions and Exxon’s profits and the value of its oil reserves.
In what is likely an attempt to rebrand Exxon from being a climate change policy obstructionist, recently Exxon has produced TV commercials in which the company announces that is supporting the development of carbon capture and storage technologies that would reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
III. Has Exxon actually stopped funding climate denial organizations?
In July 2016, DeSmog Blog reported that Exxon’s most recent financial disclosures show that the company “continues to support organizations that claim greenhouse gases are not causing climate change, or that cuts to emissions are a waste of time and money”:
Organisations including the American Enterprise Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Black Chamber of Commerce — all organisations with a record of misinformation on climate science — all received grants in 2015 from ExxonMobil. The 2015 tally brings the total amount of known Exxon funding to denial groups north of $33 million since 1998. (DeSmog Blog, 7/8/16)
According to a recent article in the Guardian, Exxon gave more than $2.3 million to members of Congress and a corporate lobbying group that deny climate change and block efforts to fight climate change – eight years after pledging to stop its funding of climate denial.
IV Has Exxon and Tillerson Actually Become Advocates of Government Action On Climate Change.
Does Exxon and Tillerson fully accept the mainstream peer-reviewed science on climate change? It is not clear.
Although both Exxon and Tillerson have asserted that they agree with the mainstream scientific view that human-induced climate change is a significant threat that must be dealt with, it is not clear that either accepts the scientific implications of the mainstream view including, for instance, neither that some fossil fuels must be left in the ground unless carbon capture and storage technology can be made affordable and proven effective nor that there is an urgent need to immediately aggressively reduce GHG emissions if the the international community hopes to prevent dangerous climate change. .
Tillerson has stated that he believes that climate change is a problem with an engineering solution. This suggests he supports the development of technologies that can either store carbon in the ground or remove carbon from the atmosphere. Yet no such technologies have been yet identified that can be deployed at the scale currently needed and that are also affordable and technologically effective despite the fact that these technologies are needed to justify continued use of oil and gas at current rates.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, to limit warming to the warming limit goals agreed to in Paris in 2015 of as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C, the world must reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
CO2 emissions from energy and industry must be zero globally around 2050 for a 1.5°C limit, which is around 10-25 years earlier than for a 2°C limit. Full decarbonization for 1.5°C limit is therefore needed by mid-century, and mid-way through the second half of the century for 2°C limit. (Climate Analytics)
Thus, the international community must achieve net zero GHG emissions from the energy and industrial sectors in 33 years to have hope of limiting warming to 1.5°C and 58 years to achieve zero GHG emissions to limit to 2°C. To achieve these civilization challenging goals, the world must act quickly and aggressively. In fact rapid reductions are particularly needed in the next few years as UNEP has concluded. In fact there is an urgency of enhancing pre-2020 mitigation efforts to have any realistic hope of achieving the warming limit goals agreed to in Paris in December 2015. (See UNEP, Emissions Gap Report 2016, pg 9)
If nations quickly respond to the obligation to begin reducing GHG emissions to achieve zero emissions by 2050, this will require rapid expansion of non-fossil energy, a possibility due to recent rapid reductions in the cost of solar energy, and require energy companies to hold fossil fuel reserves in the ground. This could leave energy companies with unprofitable reserves, or assets “stranded” underground unless carbon capture and storage or atmospheric carbon removal technologies are deployed at scale because they have become affordable and technically effective. Yet carbon storage has not yet proven affordable nor effective at the scale that would be required to prevent dangerous atmospheric GHG concentrations from continuing to rise.
Exxon has not accepted this idea. In 2014, shareholders seeking greater accountability from the company on the potential that some of its reserves would have to be left in the ground submitted a resolution to disclose how its reserves would be affected if climate action reduced demand. The company, in response, produced a report that said it would be “highly unlikely” that countries would enact action aggressive enough to affect demand. Two years later, the world’s nations agreed to the Paris climate agreement to reduce emissions to zero by late in this century.
Has Tillerson questioned or denied mainstream climate science since 2006?
Yes. In settings with stock analysts or other executives Tillerson has at times reverted back to Exxon’s old narrative that cast doubt on climate science. At the company’s 2013 annual shareholder meeting, for instance,Tillerson said: “Notwithstanding all the advancements that have been made in gathering more data, instrumenting the planet so that we understand how climate conditions on the planet are changing, notwithstanding all that data, our ability to project with any degree of certainty the future is continuing to be very limited….If you examine the temperature record of the last decade, it really hadn’t changed.” Thus Tillerson adopted the frequently discredited claim of many climate change deniers that global rises in temperatures paused in the last decade.
At the 2015 annual meeting, Tillerson said it might be better to wait for better science before taking action on climate change. “What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predict?” (Inside Climate News, Rex Tillerson’s Record on Climate Change: Rhetoric vs. Reality)
For these reasons, it is not clear that Exxon or Tillerson are willing to support US government responses on climate change that are now urgently required to deal with the climate emergency facing the world.
V. What Should Those Who Are Concerned Abouaret Climate Change Do In Response to the Tillerson Nomination.
Given the enormity of the threat to the world from climate change, the indefensible role that Exxon has played in delaying US action on climate change, and the lack of clarity about whether Rex Tillerson supports policies needed to rapidly reduce global GHG emissions to safe global emissions, concerned ciitzens should strongly oppose the Tillerson nomination while demanding that the nominee respond to the following questions under oath before a confirmation vote is taken in the US Senate:
Do you support development and deployment of non-fossil energy in the United States as rapidly as possible until technologies which can sequester carbon or remove carbon from the atmosphere have been demonstrated to be economically feasible and technically effective?
If you agree that the United States should respond to climate change by putting a price on carbon, will you immediately support legislation which creates a price on carbon at levels necessary to reduce US emissions to the US fair share of safe global emissions?
Do you agree that US policy on climate change should seek to achieve the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals of preventing warming from exceeding as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2.0 degrees C above pre-industrial levels?
If you agree that US climate policy should seek to limit warming to between 1.5 degrees C and 2.0 degrees C, do you agree that the US should clearly explain how its policies will achieve these warming limit goals of the Paris agreement?
Since you agree that human-induced climate change is a threat to people and ecological systems around the world, do you agree that Exxon should no longer fund the campaigns of politicians that deny that human-induced climate change is a threat worthy of a strong national response?
Since GHG emissions from the United States not only threaten US citizens and ecological systems but people and ecological systems around the world, do you agree that US policy on climate change should respond to the US responsibility to prevent climate change from harming all people and ecological systems around the world?
Do you agree that people and nations who could be harmed by high levels of US GHG emissions from the United States have interests in US climate change policies and if so their interests should be considered in formulating US climate policy?
Do you agree that nations that emit GHGs at levels beyond their fair share of safe global emissions have a duty to help pay for reasonable adaptation needs and unavoidable damages of low-emitting countries and individuals that have done little to cause climate change?
If you disagree that high emitting nations have responsibility to help finance reasonable adaptation needs or unavoidable damages from climate change in countries which are largely not responsible for climate change, how do you interpret the “polluter pays” principle of international law?
Do you deny that when the US formulates a GHG emissions reduction target it has a duty both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which it ratified in 1992 and the Paris Agreement to formulate its commitment after consideration of what “equity” requires of the United States and if so what does the term ‘equity” under the UNFCCC mean to you?
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence and Professor
Widener University Commonwealth Law School
Exxon changed its position at about the time that Rex Tillerson became the CEO of Exxon.
On January 8, 2009, Rex Tillerson gave a speech in Washingotn